For the first three seasons of Lena Dunham’s Girls, I was actually still in its target age demographic (barely). And from my perch uncomfortably between millennial and Gen X, I could certainly identify with the struggles for identity, love and success faced by its tight-knit group of characters. Even as I was more or less living it, I loved watching Girls’ beautifully written, slightly heightened version of sloppy young ambition.
Of course, the relative privilege of its characters’ lives is why a certain cadre of critics slammed the show. According to some, Girls is too white, its characters are self-involved and annoying, and Lena Dunham’s family background invalidates its story of struggle. Maybe even the entire idea of a main character who wants to be a successful artist is ruling-class mythology.
Nothing much in Season 4 seems set to defang these criticisms. Hannah doesn’t suddenly have to go on welfare and live in Bed-Stuy — in fact, she winds up in Iowa, at grad school, which is at best the show broadening the spectrum of the kinds of white privilege it features. We do know that Shoshanna has a new haircut, but it’s unlikely that it’s to comply with the strict grooming standards of her new gig as a part-time, minimum-wage Wal-Mart greeter with no benefits.
More personally, I wonder if, now that I have turned 35 and crossed the first checkpoint on my way to the River Styx (they made me turn in my Cultural Relevancy credentials, and Madison Avenue has stopped returning my calls), I’ll join the naysayers. Certainly, it’s less fun to watch twentysomethings dick around when you’ve got everything figured out – your personal life in order, a steady income, and a secure sense of your place in the world.
Oh, wait. THAT NEVER HAPPENS.
Girls, you see, is the ultimate expression of the old writer’s saw about reaching universality through attention to the specific. Yes, it’s set in an unapologetic fantasyland of mostly white, mostly rich kids, their misadventures amplified by leisure and a lack of accountability. But by being as faithful to its characters as its setting, it takes its admittedly narrow premise and makes it relatable, no matter where you are or where you want to go.
Because, really, nobody has it much more figured out than Hannah, Shoshanna and Marnie (a few of us may have a leg up on poor Jessa). I’ll particularly speak for those of us in our 30s, who along with our own irascible demons, have been blessed with student loans, misguided graduate degrees, six years of a comatose economy during our prime, and the technological upheaval of everything from blue-collar labor to the culture industries.
The reckless and desperate and often stupid and sometimes annoying characters of Girls don’t just strike a nerve for third-wave feminists and aspiring hipsters, but for everyone willing to admit that their world is a confusing and scary place, full of regrets and mistakes and not a few betrayals. Even people lucky enough to be settled and set spend their spare moments looking over their shoulder at what might have been, or even going out of their way to derail themselves.
We live in confused goddamn times, people. Stupid choices are the only choices a lot of us have left – but that doesn’t make us bad people, or less valuable. Girls is about lives that are risky and weird and often sad and yes, not familiar to all of us. But they’re still lives that are meaningful, because they’re human.
Girls isn’t without its problems. But neither are we.